A major European conflict of the 19th century, the Crimean War (1853–6) saw an alliance led by Britain and France challenge Russian expansion. Why did the Crimean War break out? And where was the conflict fought? What were the major battles of the Crimean War? Was the war on the Crimean peninsula the first 'modern war'? Here are the need-to-know facts about the Crimean War, from the religious tensions which spurred the conflict to the battle of Balaclava in October 1854…
Dr David Murphy, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, brings you some need-to-know facts on why, when and where the Crimean War happened…
Q: What was the Crimean War, and when was it fought?
A: It was fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia. It broke out in October 1853 – although Britain and France only became involved in 1854 – and ended in February 1856.
A: In short, Russia was expanding into the Danube region – Romania today. This was under Turkish control. Therefore, Turkey and Russia went to war in 1853, and the following year Britain and France – fearful of Russian expansion – became involved.
Britain and France did not like to see Russia pushing down into the Danube region. They feared Russia would continue pushing down, and eventually come into British India through Afghanistan.
Religious tensions also played a part. Russia made an issue of the fact that the holiest sites in Christianity – Jerusalem, Bethlehem etc – were under Turkish control.
A: It was fought on the Crimean peninsula, and also on the Black Sea. It was supposed to play out in the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Walachia), but successful Turkish military action and political pressure from Britain, France and Austria forced Russia to withdraw.
The new target for France and Britain became the Russian naval base at Sevastopol – they wanted to destroy Russian naval power in the Black Sea.
There were three main battles: the battle of the Alma on 20 September 1854, the battle of Balaclava on 24 October, and a major Russian attack at the Inkerman, in November.
After the battle of the Alma, the city was besieged by British, French, and later Sardinian troops. The Russians came out in October and November and tried to push the allies back. But these were not decisive, and the siege dragged on until September 1855.
This was trench warfare, with British and French troops trying to push into certain Russian positions. There were heavy casualties. More than 200,000 were killed. That is for all armies, including the Russians.
A: In September 1855 the Russians evacuated Sevastopol following the storming of the vital Malakhov bastion by French troops. In short, Russia gave in, and there began a move towards peace talks. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856.
Q: What were the outcomes of the war?
A: As part of the treaty, the Russian naval base was supposed to have been run down, to reduce Russian power in the Black Sea, but it never happened. Britain and France were soon no longer strong enough to make it happen, and there emerged increasing tensions between them.
But not all of the problems went away. Turkey and Russia went to war once again in 1877, but this time Britain and France stayed out.
Q: There have been suggestions that the Crimean War was one of the first ‘modern’ wars. Is this true?
A: Yes, we can recognise a number of trends. There was a level of international alliance – major powers coming together – that we would recognise today. There was also public hysteria to get involved in the war, as in the First World War.
Weapons were also more modern, and it prophesied the trench warfare that would later be seen in the American Civil War.
Q: And didn’t Florence Nightingale rise to fame during the war?
A: Yes. This was the first war in which you saw letters being sent home, and many of them were published in newspapers.
Florence Nightingale heard about the poor medical conditions in the Crimea region, and went there as a civilian to help. She became a big news story. The Crimean War was arguably the first media-driven war.
Dr David Murphy is a lecturer at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, specialising in military history.
This article was first published by History Extra in March 2014.